How to Customize the Windows Start Menu: The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide

By Tim Chesonis •  Updated: 09/28/19 •  14 min read

Of all the functions and features that your computer running Windows 10 offers, what is the one thing that can make you far more productive when sitting behind your computer?

It is essential to easily navigate your computer to find that one program, document, file or image within a few seconds, and is paramount to your productivity. Fortunately, you can customize the Windows 10 START menu to your liking, so that it will serve your workflow, making even more productive.

As an avid computer user for over 25 years, I have used Windows, Mac and numerous distributions of Linux. I can honestly say that the Windows 10 Start Menu just may be the most flexible navigational system available on any operating system today. That’s a bold claim, however, what follows just may convince you as well.

The Windows Start Menu

The one thing that can drastically change your workflow each and every time you use the computer is the START menu.

Let me be completely candid. I don’t like change. When I find something I like, I stick with it. That applies to everything from the restaurants I frequent, to where I sit in church.

I grew up using Windows, so I’m very familiar with the “traditional” menu navigation that Windows has been using since ‘Windows 95’, which I’m sure you would agree was a vast improvement from Windows 3.1.

For 17 years, Microsoft stuck with the same way of navigating their operating system (1995 – 2008), by using the simple intuitive Start menu. When Windows 95 was released, it gained an incredible following for several reasons, but primarily because it was ridiculously easy to navigate.

Microsoft had a big hit on their hands, and they kept that momentum up until the release of Windows 8, where that momentum stopped abruptly.

Like a man approaching a mid-life crisis, in an attempt to redefine their brand, Microsoft released Windows 8 in 2012. This was arguably the worst operating system they ever released. This opinion was shared by millions. It was almost entirely due to the fact that people had no idea how to navigate the operating system. Microsoft took the Start menu away and left two generations of users just sitting in front of the computer not knowing what to do, or where to click in order to open up an application.

The Windows 8 Home Screen

Windows 8 received such a poor reception, that 12 months (and forever) later, Microsoft released Windows 8.1, bringing back the Start button. However, it still did not function like Windows 7 or the traditional navigation that people had become accustomed to. In fact, Microsoft did such a poor job with Windows 8 and 8.1, that they skipped “Windows 9”, and released Windows 10 in the desperate hope of providing a brand new identity.

They wanted their users to know that they were heard loud and clear. Not only did they bring the Start menu back, but they provided an incredible amount of flexibility so that it could be customized to work the way you work.

Default Window 10 Start Menu

At First Glance, It Looks Obnoxious

Unless you have a wide-screen monitor, this is what the default Windows Start menu looks like. Coming from Windows 7, this just looks obnoxious at first glance. On a laptop, it literally takes up 50% of the width of your screen real estate.

The first time I sat behind a computer running Windows 10, I immediately tried to find a way to get the Start menu look like Windows 7. Regardless of how many settings I changed, I could not get it to look like the Windows 7 Start menu.

But there is more to the Windows 10 Start menu than meets the eye. A lot more. There are 4 main sections to this default menu. Let’s take a look.

The most important objective, is that you have the ability to get to what you need as quickly as possible, the way that works best for you. The Windows 10 Start menu offers you 5 immediate ways to find whatever you want on your computer. Let’s take a look at each, and discover all the features and benefits available to you, so that you can customize the Windows 10 Start menu to work for you, making you more productive.

1) Quick Access Icons

On the left column you can quickly access the Power icon, Settings icons, Pictures icons, Documents icons, and the “Manage your Profile” icon.

For clarification as to the meaning of each icon, simply click on the hamburger menu icon at the top left of the Start menu. This will display the names of Quick Access icons for you. These icons represent places that you will generally access frequently.

Naturally, if you click on either the Documents icon or the Pictures icon, you will be brought to each respective folder in File Explorer. If you click on the Setting icon it will open up the Windows Setting Dialog box granting you access to all of the settings available in Windows 10.

If you click on your Profile picture, you have the option to change your account settings, lock the PC, or sign out. You can either shut down your computer or restart it by clicking the Power icon.

One thing to note, however, is that you can not add items to the Quick Access icons. To add shortcuts (or favorites), you will use the Tiles to do that, but more on that after we take a look at the applications listed in alphabetical order.

2) Applications Listed in Alphabetical Order

I honestly believe that the section where the applications that are listed in alphabetical order was implemented for those who did not know what else to do when clicking on the Start menu. At the very least, one is provided the opportunity to get to an application by scrolling down the list, and then clicking on it to launch the application.

It could also be used by those who do not like to use a mouse, and prefer to use keyboard shortcuts to navigate. If that’s you, the Windows 10 Start menu is for you. If you simply hit the WINDOWS key, then navigate using the ARROW key down once, and then hit the ENTER key again, you can navigate via the arrow keys to the program you want to launch and hit the ENTER key, which of course, will launch the program in question.

Any time a new application is installed on your computer, it will, by default, be displayed in the list of applications automatically.

One really nice thing about seeing the applications in alphabetical order is that you can right-click on the application in question to manage that application. For example, you can UNPIN FROM START, and even UNINSTALL the application directly from the Start menu. Additionally, you can UNPIN FROM TASKBAR and modify the APP SETTINGS. You can also RATE AND REVIEW the given application and even SHARE it with others if you wanted to so that they could download the app from the Microsoft Store onto their computer.

If you do not wish to see the applications listed, (like me), thankfully, you can remove them altogether. Here’s how:

Click the START menu and then the SETTINGS icon and type the words “START SETTINGS“, or simply click the START menu and then type the word, “START” in the search field. When you do, the START SETTINGS will immediately appear toward the top of the list.

Note that it could be the 2nd or 3rd item in the list. It shows up first in my list because I already did this a couple of times to get the screenshot, and Windows learns from your searching habits and places what it thinks will be your first choice at the top.

Once the Start Settings dialog box appears, you will see the SHOW APP LIST IN START MENU option. To remove the applications list from the Start menu, turn this setting OFF.

Now, when you click on the Start menu, the application list will not appear, and your menu should look something like the menu below, (your tiles will vary from mine).

There is one more thing that I want to bring to your attention regarding the applications list. Once you hide the list, you can easily get it back, but not by going through all that we just did and undoing it. Simply click the START button, and then click on the hamburger menu icon (at the very top of the Start menu). Having disabled the applications list from displaying by default, you can now simply click on the ALL APPS icon, (3rd down from the top). This bring the application list back for you. Easy-peasy.

In the next section, we are going to customize the tiles so that you can get them looking exactly like you want.

3) The Tile View

The tile view is for those who think visually, and want to quickly access their applications. Using the tiles, you can access your application in two clicks. Simply click the START menu button and then the TILE button of your choice to launch the application.

But how do you make it yours? How do you get the Windows Start menu to work for you? Let’s take a look at how the tiles function and what you can do with them.

To begin, you need to understand what options you have. The Tiles menu allows you to drag and drop tiles wherever you want them displayed within the Tiles menu You can also resize each tile to your liking, and even group tiles.

Additionally, the Title menu allows you to right-click on any size tile, you’ll see that can UNPIN FROM START, RESIZE, click MORE, or UNINSTALL the application in question. If you click MORE, you can change the size of the tile to SMALL, MEDIUM, WIDE, or LARGE.

Drag and Drop Tiles

As already mentioned, you can drag and drop applications within the Tile display to change where they are displayed. Not only can you drag and drop tiles from within the tile display, buy you can drag and drop tiles from the applications list into the Tile sections of the Start Menu. Additionally, you can drag & drop a tile onto another, creating a group, but more on that in a minute.

Resizing Tiles

Microsoft has granted you the freedom to resize the tiles. You have the option to change any tile from small, to medium, to wide, to large. You can resize the tile by right-clicking on it, click RESIZE, and then select which size you want the tile to be.

The “small” tile looks like those grouped in the second row on the left in the screenshot below. The “medium” is the size of the calendar tile in the top left. The “wide” tile is the size of the Photos and Mail tiles below, (2nd and 3rd row, all the way to the right). Finally, the “large” tile is the size of the “Microsoft Solitaire Collection” title a the bottom left.

You can make any tile any size you want, and place it anywhere you want, even grouped together. Let’s see what that looks like.

Grouping Tiles

Take note of the grouped Microsoft Office icons in the image above. Once you click on that title, it then opens up (now see image below), allowing you to select the tile you with to launch.

You could think of tiles as a “Favorites” menu. You can group you favorite applications together. Ironically, this is how “folders” are created on your phone. By simply opening the folder, you get to see the contents of that folder and click to launch that application.

To move one tile from within a grouped folder, simply click and drag it to any other place within the tile menu, or into another group. You can then resize that tile if you wish. You have complete control over the look and layout of the tiles in the tile menu.

You can even change the title of the section within the tiles menu. For example, in the image above, you have two sections of tiles. The first section is under the title, PRODUCTIVITY, and the second section is entitled, ENTERTAINMENT. To change the section title, simply click on that title and you can instantly type what you want that section title to be.

To create a new Section, simply drag one tile onto another below the bottom section. You will then have created a new section, and you can name it whatever you want.

One more thing to note regarding the Tile view. There is an option to resize the Start menu to “full screen” (as shown below). Obviously, I did not add more tiles, but I simply changed the menu to “full screen mode” with the tiles that I currently have. You could add more titles, as many as you want and categories them the way that works best for you.

One might want their Start menu display like this if they want to organize their applications into groups on their Desktop. You can place any size tile into any group you like. With Windows 7, many people would use a utility called, “Fences”, which did just this. With Windows 10, you can get the functionality of “Fences” AND keep your Desktop clean. Very nice.

It may not be your cup of tea, but you’ve got to give it to Microsoft for allowing the Start menu to be this flexible.

To get your Start menu to display in “Full Screen”, you simply follow the steps below:

Click the START button and then either click the GEAR icon to open up the SETTINGS menu, or simply type “full screen” (without quotes) in the search bar (see below).

Toggle USE START FULL SCREEN option from OFF to ON.

4) The Windows Key

The Windows Key is to Windows what Spotlight is to the Mac, or what ALT-SPACEBAR is to Linux. You can instantly search for anything on your computer by simply pressing the WINDOWS key. If you did not know, this key is located at the bottom left side of your keyboard, (between the right of the CTRL key and the ALT key).

The use of the Windows key is by far one of the most overlooked productivity tools in all of Windows.

By simply pressing the Windows key, you access anything on your computer by simply typing the name. For example, you could type the name of a contact, the name of an application, document, or e-mail, and it will come up. You can even type a phrase, and any e-mail associated with Microsoft Outlook will appear.

Note that if you simply click the START menu icon, and start typing anything, it will start searching for anything related to what you are typing. If you click the START menu icon and then click in the TYPE HERE TO SEARCH (or press the Win-S keys), your Start menu will look like the image below. Here, you can search by way of category.

Note the three sections displayed here (as indicated by the red outlined boxes). You have the Main Menu, Top Apps, and Recent Activities.

When you click on any one of the main menu items listed at the top, you can see the most commonly used files, as well as recent activity. From there, you can simply click on the file or application to open it up.

5) Right-Click on the Start Menu

When you right click on the Start menu, the following menu appears. This menu is geared towards power users who need to run Administrative tasks. If these menu items look foreign to you, you can simply leave them alone. However, if you are a System Administrator, you will find this menu indispensable for your daily tasks. I just want to show that the Windows Start Menu even provides for the needs of Windows System Administrators.

Closing Thoughts

It is my hope that you now see just how many different types of users this one Start menu caters to. From the Start menu, you can get instant access to any program, file, document, email, image, contact, folder, music file, picture, or setting within Windows.

I would encourage you to explore all the features of provided to you. There are countless ways in which you can customize the Windows Start menu. The more you explore all the features of the Windows Start menu, the more productive you will become each and every time you sit behind your computer.

Tim Chesonis

Tim has been helping people with computers needs for several years, and he loves to help people succeed. He brings a wealth of wisdom and insight from an entrepreneur's perspective and enjoys freelance writing. In fact, when he's not writing an article, you might find him binge-watching Suits or formatting his computer . . . again, just for fun. To learn more about Tim, click here.